The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 235 million people around the world have asthma. It’s considered to be one of the most common respiratory issues in the world, and it’s the most common non-communicable disease among children. Asthma is characterized by “attacks,” symptoms of which include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. They are caused when something triggers the lung’s airways to narrow and increase mucus output, making it difficult to breathe. While there are treatments to help prevent attacks and manage symptoms, asthma is a chronic disease and has no cure.
For many people, asthma is a manageable nuisance, but it has the potential to become life-threatening. In 2015, asthma caused 383,000 deaths internationally. There are a variety of potential triggers for asthma attacks, including allergens, pollen, dust, animal dander, and smoke. Even stress, intense exercising, and anything that impacts your breathing pattern can trigger an attack. Other factors, such as air pollution and certain illnesses can also increase the likelihood of having an asthma attack, exacerbate symptoms, and make people with asthma more vulnerable to other respiratory issues.
Where Does Asthma Come From?
The exact origin is unknown, but there is a range of potential causes. While it is not fully understood, there is clearly a genetic component – if one of your parents has asthma, you are more likely to have asthma than someone who doesn’t. However, most research indicates that the primary causes of asthma are environmental. Potential contributing factors are different for everyone, although children are more vulnerable because they are smaller and still developing. Over time, some people find that their asthma symptoms decrease as they get older. However, asthma never completely goes away and there’s always a chance symptoms could come back later in adulthood.
Understanding Adult-Onset Asthma
Children are not the only vulnerable population – adults can also develop asthma. This is called adult-onset asthma and can have different causes than asthma in children. Hormonal changes, existing respiratory issues, and working conditions can cause asthma in adults. Occupational asthma is when work-related conditions induce or exacerbate asthma symptoms. Chemicals, irritants, and pollutants are all potential hazards present in work sites. Risk factors vary by person, but people who work in high-exposure areas for long periods are more likely to develop symptoms or become more sensitized to certain substances. Sometimes asthma symptoms subside immediately after leaving the affected environment, but other people continue to experience symptoms long afterward.
Recognizing Patterns, Reducing Impact
So, how can you protect you and your children against asthma? While there is no way to avoid a genetic predisposition, it is possible to reduce potential environmental risks. If you suspect you, your child or another person in your life has asthma, learn more about what triggers their specific attacks and identify environmental factors that you can control. Keep an asthma diary to recognize patterns in triggers and attacks. Make sure you stay up to date on vaccines and regularly check in with your doctor. Plan for the unpredictable – do you have a strategy for dealing with asthma in a sudden stressful situation, when you’re traveling, in the case of a natural disaster? You may not be able to prevent every attack, but the more you understand asthma and the way it affects you and your family, the more you can reduce its impact on your life.